This Week in Peterborough: 1889


A mysterious ad in the January 25th, 1889, Peterborough Examiner.

Much as 1888 had been, late January of 1889 was time without thunderously major events in Peterborough or abroad.  However, as usual, there were enough nascent crises, interesting issues, and enjoyable social occasions to fill the pages of the local newspapers.  Click on, then, for politics in France, part-time streetlights in Peterborough, a brief mention of a boodler, and other things!  And we’ll explain about the Wigwam at the end of the post.

Most of the overseas attention this time around was aimed at France, with much local newspaper coverage of the election of General Georges Boulanger to the French parliament as a representative for Paris (he received a quarter of a million votes in the city).  It was widely assumed that Boulanger, who had the support of the pro-monarchy parties as well as those who looked back fondly to the days of Napoleon, would lead a coup d’état, and that France would become a military dictatorship and perhaps even put an emperor back on the throne.  A coup would almost certainly also lead to war with Germany, as one of Boulanger’s main policy planks was revenge for the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War 20 years earlier.


General Georges Boulanger (via Wikimedia Commons)


None of these fears, as it turned out, came to fruition.  Instead of capitalizing on his popularity and seizing the reins of power, Boulanger announced that he would contest the general election in the summer of 1889, and ambled off to spend time with his mistress.  In his absence, the French government charged him with treason, and in April of that year he fled into self-imposed exile (he returned to France and committed suicide in 1891).  Once again, a major European crisis had been averted, but as we move along in this series through the late 19th century, it becomes more and more amazing to me that the First World War waited as long as it did.

The Canadian parliament was not in session in January of 1889, which may explain the relative lack of major happenings on the national scene.  There was, however, a burgeoning dispute going on in Manitoba over the railways, with the Canadian Pacific fighting very hard to maintain its virtual monopoly on effective rail transport in the West.  I will not go into detail about this particular chapter in that saga, but it did lead to a somewhat humorous note in the Peterborough newspapers.  The January 28th Peterborough Examiner quoted Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway (whom we met in last week’s post) describing one of his political enemies as “a miserable funking creature and a self-condemned boodler” – a lovely example of period political invective!

(As a quick linguistic aside, you may be wondering here whether “funking” is a neat journalistic euphemism for a similar word.  That is possible, but by no means certain, as there is a somewhat archaic verb, “to funk,” which means to shy away from something for reasons of cowardice.  A boodler, quite simply, is somebody who takes political bribes.)


Hunter Street in 1910. The power poles were old hat by then, but in 1889 they were still a new thing! (via the Toronto Public Library)


Here in Peterborough, the big issue up for civic debate had to do with the lighting.  In May of 1884, Peterborough had become the first place in Canada to have electric streetlights, a source of immense and well-deserved civic pride.  However, in order to save money, the streetlights were shut off at midnight — after all, what decent person would be out and about, and in need of lighting, in the wee hours of the morning?  Well, doctors, firemen, and policemen, as it turned out, and the Peterborough Examiner weighed in on what it viewed as a false economy in an editorial on January 28th.  Quoth the newspaper:

“There is no reason why Peterborough, which in every other respect occupies a leading position amongst the towns and minor cities, should be behindhand in the matter of lighting her streets and thoroughfares, especially at night… We have the best and cheapest system of electric lighting in Canada and there is no reason why we should not reap the full advantage of such a possession…  The people are willing to be taxed for necessary improvements, and the lighting of our streets after twelve o’clock cannot but be regarded as a necessity…”

The Examiner was supported the next day by a letter to the editor from an anonymous local doctor, who wrote about the hazards of making late-night emergency calls, and complained of “the unpleasant sensation of traversing alone the dark, dismal, unlighted streets at the uncanny and ghostly hours ‘ayont the twal.'”


A Knights of Labour March on King Street in Toronto, sometime in the 1880s. (Image Source)

There were broader social issues up for discussion in Peterborough as well; on January 28th, the Carpenters’ Union hosted a meeting of workers at the Knights of Labour Hall to discuss the issue of shorter working days.  Canada’s organized labour movement was a growing thing in the late 1880s, and this particular Peterborough gathering had a distinguished speaker in the form of R.R. Elliott, an Uxbridge native who was a high-ranking official in the Knights.  Elliott fully endorsed the movement for a shorter workday as a solution to rampant unemployment, and also gave a fiery exhortation in favour of organized labour (quote is from the January 29th Examiner):

“[Elliott] said he regarded this short-hour movement as the only thing that could solve the great problem of the day, how to find work for the unemployed; and as the agitation progressed the workingmen would realize more and more that perfect organization was necessary…   [The Knights of Labour] realized the necessity of organization among workingmen to resist the encroachments of their enemies, the capitalists.”

Ironically, Elliott was a bit of a controversial figure within the organized labour movement, with a number of his fellow Knights viewing him as a Conservative Party stool-pigeon.

Apart from the issues of workers’ rights and the electric streetlamps (and of course, wondering about the mysterious “Wigwam”), Peterborians also had a full social calendar to look forward to as January of 1889 headed resolutely towards February.  The local curling team was hosting a tournament as part of the district championships, to begin with.  Sadly, the Peterborough team was knocked out in the semi-finals by the squad from Whitby, which itself went on to defeat Orillia in the finals.

George Street United

George Street United Church, formerly George Street Methodist, as it appears today (Image Source)

And finally, the bachelors of George Street Methodist Church threw a party on January 29th for the unmarried women of the parish, featuring food, music, and impromptu two-minute comic lectures on a variety of topics (e.g. “The Idiosyncrasies of Cats”).  By all accounts, the evening was a vast success, and everybody was looking forward to the young women throwing a similar shindig for the bachelors.  The object of these parties, of course, was to get young people introduced to each other, and the January 30th Examiner predicted that “[w]hen these two entertainments have been held the Rev. Mr. Pearson will reap a matrimonial harvest, unless [we are] greatly mistaken.”

And on that note, we finish off!  Next time out, we’ll take a look at what was happening in early February of 1890.


The Wigwam, in the end, turned out to be a clothing store, located right next to the Opera House on George Street. A bit anticlimactic perhaps, but there it is!  (Peterborough Examiner, February 1st, 1889)


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